For poor man's food, a rise up the snob scale

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PHOTO: TAN NHAN
A dish of cơm tấm (broken rice) with sườn nưá»›ng (grilled pork ribs) and chả (a mix of steamed eggs, a mix of steamed eggs, crab meat, ground pork meat, Jew's ear mushroom, and vermicelli) at Cơm tấm Nguyá»…n Văn Cừ restaurant in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City

Cơm tấm, or broken rice, used to be referred to as "poor people's rice" since it was made from grains broken during harvest or cleaning and sold cheap.

However, over the years, it has become so popular with Saigonese that they eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It can be found almost everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City and the southern provinces, from street stalls with plastic stools and tables to fancy air-conditioned restaurants.

To meet this huge demand, ironically, cơm tấm restaurants now spend time breaking rice grains.

Besides, given its omnipresence, restaurant owners have to come up with variations to keep their customers.

From most basic

The most common and favorite accompaniment when it comes to cơm tấm is sườn nưá»›ng (grilled pork ribs).

One restaurant near the Nguyen Van CuNguyen Trai junction in District 5, for instance, overwhelms patrons with a giant loin rib.

Big enough to cover two-thirds of the rice plate, it fairly distracts customers from other foods. It would be no exaggeration to say it is the biggest pork rib one can find at cơm tấm restaurants in Saigon, but it is also tasty thanks to the chef's secret seasoning and grilling techniques.

Needless to say it is a big attraction that draws many customers.

Another restaurant, this one located at the Nguyen DuThu Khoa Huan junction in District 1, serves spare ribs along with cơm tấm, instead of loin ribs like most others.

Though people often eat grilled pork ribs with (slices of seasoned pork skin and meat) or chả (a mix of steamed eggs, crab meat, ground pork meat, Jew's ear mushroom, and vermicelli) or both, I would like to recommend the small street restaurant's best combination: fried eggs along with the ribs and chả.

For some reason, the combination is delicious. The chả itself is very tasty since it comes with small cubes of pork fat.

Two more options

and chả are two other basic foods to have with cơm tấm.

Cơm tấm Nguyá»…n Văn Cừ
167 Nguyen Van Cu Street, Ward 2, District 5

Open hours: 6:30 a.m.3 p.m.

Price: sườn nưá»›ng (VND75,000), sườn chả (VND85,000), sườn bì (VND85,000)

Cơm tấm Nguyá»…n Du
77 Nguyen Du Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1

Open hours: 6:30 a.m.12 a.m.

Price: VND42,000/dish

Cơm tấm Ngô Thời Nhiệm
85 Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street, Ward 4, District 3

Open hours: 6:30 a.m.9 a.m.

Price: VND27,000/dish

Cơm tấm số 1 Nguyá»…n Trãi
150/1 Nguyen Trai Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1

Open hours: 6:30 a.m.1 p.m.

Price: bì chả (VND35,000), sườn (VND40,000), sườn bì (VND45,000)

Cơm tấm An Dương Vương
500 An Duong Vuong Street, Ward 4, District 5

Open hours: 6:30 a.m.9:30 p.m.

Price: VND35,000120,000/dish

The best cơm tấm bì I have ever had is at a restaurant on Nguyen Trai Street, District 1. It is so good I have been eating it for the last 20 years, from the time I was still a student.

To make , pork skin and fried pork are cut into long thin strips, mixed with garlic and thính, a Vietnamese spice made from roasted rice or grilled rice paper, and ground fine. This restaurant, however, uses more meat than skin.

And for the best cơm tấm chả, I recommend a restaurant located in an old villa on Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street, District 3.

Unlike many other cơm tấm restaurants, this one opens only in the morning and sells out by 9 a.m. But to taste its famous chả, one should go before 8 a.m.

Besides the basic foods, Saigon restaurants also offer lots of other options for customers to eat with cơm tấm.

A restaurant on An Duong Vuong Street, District 5, for instance, can easily confuse a new customer with its long menu.

One of its specialties is tôm kho tàu (shrimp braised in seasoned coconut juice). Though this is usually eaten with white rice, it is a good choice for cơm tấm too.

Another recommendation is lạp xưởng, commonly referred to as Chinese sausage in English. Though it is made from ground lean pork mixed with pork fat, the lạp xưởng at the restaurant does not taste fatty or greasy like it usually does. It is also a bit salty, sweet, and even spicy from chili powder.

Other dishes in the menu include thịt kho trứng (salted pork meat and eggs), cá kho (braised fish), and má»±c xào (stir-fried squid), just to name a few.

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